Obituary: Grover Washington Jnr

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
TO THOSE of us for whom Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Gil Evans were immortal milestones along the highway of jazz, Grover Washington Jnr equated to a set of traffic lights on a minor road.

Along with present-day universities and funders of the arts, to whom "swing" and "mainstream" are dirty words, whilst anything "contemporary" is good, he was responsible over the last 30 years for the decomposition of the term "jazz" as a definition of creative music with form, beauty and admirable invention. In a parallel situation in classical music, such authorities would have considered the music of Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart redundant.

Washington appeared on the scene at a time when the fad was for "fusion" and "crossover" music. These employed the substitution of invention in jazz with a dilution of it, with "pop", "funk", "soul music" and anything that removed from both the musician and the audience the necessity to think. Washington was very good at this and became one of the most popular saxophonists of all time.

It must be said that, within the saccharine settings that were used to back him, he did try to play creative (i.e. improvised) music but never pretended to the mastery of subtlety and nuance that would have made him a memorable contributor to jazz. He was, however, made to sound better than he was when his playing was compared with that of some of his disciples, notably David Sanborn and the even more famous Kenny G.

Washington's father, Grover Washington Snr, was a tenor saxophonist and he gave his son his first saxophone when he was 10. Grover Jnr's mother sang in a choir in Buffalo where the family lived and his brother played the organ in local churches. The youngest brother, Darryl, became a professional drummer.

"My early lessons were on the saxophone, then it was the piano, the drum and percussion family, and the bass guitar," said Washington. By the time he was 12, he was working in local clubs.

He left Buffalo to tour with a group called the Four Clefs between 1959 and 1963. For two years after that he worked with the organist Keith McAllister. Saxophone, organ and rhythm section was a hugely popular format in the United States and, after two years in the US Army in 1965-67, Washington worked with another organist, Charles Earland (who died on 11 December). He began to get work playing on "soul-jazz" dates, playing with popular organists and guitar players.

His first album under his own name came about entirely by accident, in September 1971. The alto saxophone player David "Fathead" Newman was due to record a set of arrangements for the Kudu label but was unable to present himself at the studio at the time and Washington was grabbed as a last-minute replacement. "My big break was blind luck," he said. He rose to the occasion triumphantly and the resulting album, Inner City Blues, was an enormous hit. On the strength of it Washington formed his own band to tour.

He was immediately swamped with bookings for festivals and concerts. Mostly he played popular hit songs on his three saxophones (soprano, tenor and alto, later adding flute) and used fashionable powerful amplification to let him keep pace with the electronic organs, guitars and pianos that also made up one of the fads of the day. But occasionally Washington, who was an accomplished master of his instrumental techniques, would switch off the electricity and play an acoustic version of a more esoteric jazz standard like "Loverman" or a graceful Billy Strayhorn tune such as "Passion Flower". The latter was included in his 1974 album Mister Magic, which became the first of a long string of his albums to win gold and platinum disc awards.

Eight of his albums reached the top of the charts. His most successful collection was Winelight (1980). On it he used the singer Bill Withers and the song "Just The Two of Us" became a hit as a single. The album climbed to No 5 in the US record charts before falling back exhausted.

His last record to get to the top of the jazz charts was Next Exit, in 1992. This contained the hit "Summer Chill", which he wrote with his son and which was nominated for a Grammy award. He played the themes for two popular television series, The Cosby Show and Moonlighting. Washington's music quickly spread worldwide and he followed it with tours of Europe, Japan and the Far East. The encyclopedias describe him as playing a fundamental role in shaping the "smooth jazz" of the Nineties.

His career continued to burgeon and in 1993 he played with President Bill Clinton (tenor sax) at a jam session at the White House after a concert held there to celebrate the aforementioned "smooth jazz". Good saxophone playing is not one of the talents for which Clinton was elected. Washington returned to blow at the President's 50th birthday celebrations at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 1996. "Grover Washington was as versatile as any jazz musician in America, moving with ease and fluency from vintage jazz to funk, and from gospel to blues to pop," Clinton said. "I will miss both the man and his music."

Washington was seldom out of one kind of a studio or another, so it was grimly appropriate that on Friday he had taped four songs to be used in CBS Television's Saturday Early Morning Show before collapsing and dying in the studio.

Grover Washington, saxophonist and bandleader: born Buffalo, New York 12 December 1943; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 17 December 1999.